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Glacier Girl

The Lockheed P-38 saved from an icy tomb is now the star attraction in a previously quiet Kentucky town.

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Brad McManus was the first to touch down. His P-38 flipped over after his landing gear made contact with the ice (McManus was uninjured), so the other pilots made wheels-up belly landings. Harry Smith’s airplane was the last Lightning to land. In his logbook, a relieved Smith wrote of his P-38: “Best damn crate I ever damn saw.” The airplane was 62 days old and had flown a total of 72 hours.

The pilots had plenty of food and even a case of clandestine whiskey—and that was fortunate because it took more than a week for a rescue party to arrive and lead them to safety. Harry Smith destroyed his top-secret Identification Friend or Foe radio with a few shots from his .45-caliber pistol, and he and the rest of the men hiked 10 miles to the coast and a waiting boat while dog sleds carried their gear. Their adventure was over, the airplanes abandoned and forgotten. The lost squadron, it seemed, would be a minor footnote in a long war.

By the time the war ended, the United States had manufactured 300,000 aircraft. Slightly more than 10,000 were P-38s, a fighter that, in the years after McManus and Smith landed on the ice, became a legend. Lockheed’s first military aircraft to go into production, it was also the first single-seat, twin-engine fighter. In 1937 the Army Air Corps had sought designs for an interceptor that could reach 360 mph at 20,000 feet in six minutes. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard had designed a radical machine: a big all-metal airplane with twin tailbooms, each housing a liquid-cooled turbo-supercharged Allison V-12 engine powering counter-rotating propellers. In the nose, four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon gave the “fork-tailed-devil,” as the Germans called it, a devastating punch. Capable of slightly more than 400 mph, it was the fastest Allied airplane in the skies at the beginning of the war.

“Boy, was it a sweet airplane,” says Bud Holecheck, 78, who flew Lightnings in low-altitude strafing and dive-bombing runs during the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge. “If you got hit and lost an engine, no problem. You could do aerobatics on one engine. When we returned from a combat mission, we’d show off. We’d come in at 350 feet and instead of peeling up, we’d peel right in a snap roll and put it on the ground in 30 seconds. Some guys could do it in 20. You couldn’t do that in a P-51 or P-40. And you had so much firepower. When we’d come in on a locomotive, all five guns would hit at the same time. For pure aerial combat, the -51 has to be known as the best, but you put it together and the Lightning could do it all.” (At the end of the war, Holecheck flew a loop around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in a P-38.)

The lost squadron’s Brad McManus, now 85, echoes Holecheck. Two years after his rescue from the ice he finally made it to Europe, where he flew 85 missions, first in P-38s, then in P-51 Mustangs. “Everyone who ever flew a -38 loved it,” he says. “It was very smooth because the counter-rotating props eliminated torque, so you could roll and maneuver much better than [in] a Mustang. When it came time to transition from the -38 to the -51, no one wanted to.” But in combat, McManus admits, “the -51 was better. After we transitioned, our ratio of victories went up.

“If I had to fly one just for the pleasure,” says McManus, “I’d fly a -38, but if I had to fight the Germans, I’d want to be in a Mustang.”

Early P-38 versions had a few glitches: In high-speed dives they could become uncontrollable: “You’d get a lot of buffeting and couldn’t pull out,” says McManus. And with its small air intakes and complex cooling system, its engines could overheat. Later versions (there were 11 in all) featured dive flaps for better control during descents and enlargements of the intakes in the engine nacelles and at the side of the tail booms.

Although Lightnings served in every theater, the aircraft distinguished itself in the Pacific. With its long range (almost 2,600 miles in late models with drop tanks) and its ability to fly on one engine, it was perfect for a watery world of far-flung islands. Flying P-38s in the Pacific, Major Richard Bong and Major Thomas B. McGuire became the most prolific aces in World War II, with Bong scoring 40 kills and McGuire racking up 38. And on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1943, a flight of Lightnings scored a victory against the Japanese that assured the aircraft’s place in legend. After U.S. cryptographers learned how to decipher coded Japanese radio transmissions, 16 P-38s ambushed two Mitsubishi Betty bombers and their escort of six Zero fighters off the Pacific island of Bougainville. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was aboard one of the bombers, and Lightnings shot down both Bettys, killing Yamamoto.

And then one day they were gone—nearly 10,000 P-38s. By 1945 the first jets were taking wing; in 1947 Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound. Lightnings, like Hellcats, B-17 Fortresses, and B-24 Liberators, were just so much scrap metal. They were blown up, melted down, and bulldozed. Bud Holecheck remembers watching row upon row of P-38s lined up for target practice at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. By 1980 there were only 25 Lightnings left, less than 10 still flyable. Today they are among the rarest objects on Earth.

All of which is why it was a little jarring to encounter Glacier Girl in its hangar-cum-museum at a tiny airport in the Appalachian town of Middlesboro, looking like it just popped off the assembly line. Every rivet was perfect, the canopy shined, the wheel wells were clean enough to lick. It was the day before the start of the 2003 Dayton Air Show, at which Glacier Girl would compete for the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Award, and Bob Cardin and the airplane’s pilot, Steve Hinton, president of the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California, were giving Glacier Girl a final once-over before Hinton flew it to Dayton. “What a bird!” said Hinton. “That’s as nice as you can make an airplane.” Hinton was circling the airplane while also browsing through memorabilia from its original flight and documentation of its now-famous recovery.

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